“Sherlock” US premiere: Hype warranted?

Lily Korte, Staff Reporter

It’s often been said that the internet changes the way we watch TV. While this is usually taken as referring solely to the impact of both legal web-streaming and illegal file-sharing, it’s also worth considering the international implications. In an age of spoiler warnings, having television shows debut on different dates in different countries seems like a total anachronism. Thus, when the long-awaited third season of “Sherlock” finally premiered on PBS this Sunday, most of the internet had already been bombarded by everyone’s thoughts on the new episodes from when they had aired on BBC (and the BBC iPlayer) earlier in the month. Without giving too much away about the remaining two episodes of the three-episode season, it’s only fair to ask whether the long-delayed third season as a whole lives up to the hype.

A common criticism of “Sherlock”—that, for a mystery series, it isn’t plotted particularly well—is unfortunately even more in evidence now than in either of the previous seasons. How the viewer reacts to this, though, is largely a reflection on what the viewer wants from the show to begin with. For the majority of the fans, the appeal lies more in the acting, writing and characters themselves than in the plots, because anyone following the show for logical, coherent mysteries probably would’ve abandoned it even before the end of season two. Sometimes letting the characters carry the day works well for “Sherlock,” as its cast, particularly the two leads, are excellent actors, but in most of the third season, the entire enterprise feels a bit too scattershot for comfort. Just because the necessity of a plot often hampers exploration of the relationships between characters doesn’t mean that the story can simply be ignored. Without the backbone of an intriguing mystery propping up the action, everything tends to fall apart, as illustrated by the shapeless, meandering and often nonsensical second episode, “The Sign Of Three.” As a consumer of fiction, I personally tend to value characterization over plot, but even the character-building scenes here seem to suffer as a result—an extended segment with a fumbling Watson & Holmes involved in drunken deductions was surely meant to be an amusing treat for the fangirls, but I found it interminable and dull. (For all three seasons of the show though, the second episode has generally been the weakest, so I suppose this was to be expected.)

A lot of the problems with the third season, in fact, seem to revolve around the show having become too “meta” for its own good. Continuity nods and in-jokes are one thing, especially in a series with a complex cultural mythology that dates back into the 19th century, but it’s never a good sign when episodes seem increasingly written to tickle the fancy of the fans, rather than being written to further the overall arc of the show. This is especially puzzling given how long of a hiatus occurred between the second and third seasons. Had the third season come out a year or so earlier, it would’ve seemed much less underwhelming, I suspect. Even the explanation in “The Empty Hearse” of how Sherlock Holmes survived his seemingly fatal fall at the end of season two was unsatisfying.

If the first two episodes seem a bit muddled, viewers can at least rest easy knowing that the third, if not quite a return to form, at least has something in the way of dramatic tension. Without wanting to spoil anything, I can only say that the main villain of the episode is one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen on television in the past couple years. I can also say that the plot takes more than a couple left turns throughout the episode, taking the audience to some very unexpected places with some surprising people popping up. A lot of the setup for the third episode that took place in the earlier episodes felt too obvious though, as certain characters seemed suspicious even before they had done anything to elicit suspicion from the audience. The door is left wide open for a fourth season at the end of it all, but given how much the writers seem to have been struggling for compelling storylines throughout the third, it makes one wonder what’s left to anticipate.

All in all, it’s hard to know what to make of the third season. If I seem unduly harsh, it has less to do with the show’s quality and more to do with the high expectations it has inevitably raised for itself. It’s become the trendy thing recently among publications like The Onion A.V. Club to bash the BBC’s “Sherlock” and proclaim CBS’s “Elementary” to be the superior modern Holmes adaptation, but that still feels more like willful contrarianism than genuine conviction at this point. As in last week’s review of “Community” though, I have to express the same sort of concern towards any series that gains such a devoted, uncritical cult following, as it inevitably leads to lazy writing. “Sherlock” is still a good show compared to most of what’s on TV, but it could easily be a better show than it is, and it sadly seems to have settled into what can only be described as complacency.